Where does faith begin? Will it start with the omnipresent power of a higher power? Does it lie in the safety and comfort of another’s arms? Can it be discovered in the certain knowledge that life can be an uneasy series of challenges?
These questions all weigh on the mind of singer-songwriter Shawn Nelson. Such queries aren’t unique; many search for the same answers and many more will follow suit in the future. Not all will set a pen to paper, but all can understand the struggles Nelson discusses on his third solo recording Ain’t No Easy Way. His expressions of faith lost and found in the face of disappointment, temptation, and redemption offer a voice to those who silently wonder whether they can rise above the world crumbling around them.
As a songwriter, Nelson operates under one basic rule: Keep it simple. Hyperbole has obviously never made his acquaintance, and that’s perfectly fine with him. While the Austin, Texas resident’s compositions do not contain flowery language, he is more than capable of capturing beauty and despair. A host of fine musicians lend their talents to Ain’t No Easy Way including past and present members of Nelson’s own band the Ramblers (Joe Faulhaber, who also provides the record’s only-cowrite on “Jesus & The Honky-Tonk Queen”, Nick Chambers, and PJ Herrington) as well as Kris Brown, Trisha Keefer, Jerome Kinkaid, and LZ Love. Additionally, Nelson’s well-worn, salt-of-the-earth voice elevates him from singer to storyteller, infusing the narratives on the record with a kind of ragged grace under fire.
In a song that seems ripped from today’s headlines, mournful opener “Ain’t It A Shame” follows the plight of a man who has done everything he’s always been told to do in order to survive, yet he is still unable to make ends meet. Nelson demonstrates the palpable frustration of a protagonist who is “chained to the grave/a slave to the game.”
The gospel-influenced rave-up “Don’t Let the Devil Drag You Down” responds directly to “Ain’t It A Shame,” warning against the dangers of becoming overburdened. Keefer’s blazing fiddle solo intensifies the joyous mood of the piece, and Love’s harmonies on the number provide an ethereal contrast to Nelson’s gravelly vocals.
While there’s plenty of talk about faith, Nelson is hardly pious, as is demonstrated in the toe-tapping hook-up tune “Don’t Wanna Be Your Baby” in which he relates with blunt enthusiasm “I don’t wanna be your baby/No I don’t even wanna be your friend.” Lest the potential, somewhat drunken conquest get the wrong idea, he unapologetically admits “We only got tonight/But I gotta be at work by nine.” Exuberant picking and Nelson’s wry delivery carry what would otherwise be construed as a crude conversation.
Elsewhere, in the more melancholy “Jesus & the Honky-Tonk Queen” Nelson offers futile resistance to a temptress in the red dress traipsing around the local watering hole: “I thought I was sittin’ on Jesus’ knee/But it was just a warm barstool and a honky-tonk queen.”
Slow burner “You Are There” and the bluesy “Do Me Fine” are decidedly more romantic numbers, where Nelson seeks solace in the healing love of a woman.
Rounding out the record is “Streets of Gold,” which espouses the hopes of people who are “proud and poor” yet “tired of tryin’ and cryin’ for crumbs/and fighting for nothin’ but war.” In some ways, the protagonist of “Ain’t It A Shame” has come full circle, arriving at a place where he can dare to dream of something better for himself and his loved ones. While Nelson proclaims that “there ain’t no easy way” in life, neither are there any easy answers to the questions he asks throughout his record. Ultimately, he seems to arrive at the conclusion that the answers aren’t as important as the act of finding the courage to recognize the world for what it is and fight against what it isn’t.
By Carolyn Dixon